Monday, 25 February 2013

Modern Elgins?

Not quite. Yet the enduring elements are the dispossession of ordinary people who do not actually own what is in their midst and the justification in which wealthy appropriators seem compelled to find public solace:

... important works in the street art scene and deserved buyers "whose first interest is in art and its preservation".

Street scene inadequately preserved
A mural by Banksy has been stealthily removed from its original location on the outer wall of a Poundshop in a poor area of north London and turned up for auction (along with another such mysterious apparition) in Florida, amid much protest from the non-collecting regions of the art world in Britain and from the streets of Wood Green.   The justification by preservation, long advanced by the British Museum and establishment in respect of Lord Elgin's removal of the Acropolis marbles, is much employed by the possessing classes in the era of democracy, when public claims to possession if not ownership have to be given some recognition. Perhaps it will be seen to be less necessary as we come increasingly to accept the hollowness of democracy and the escalating polarisation of wealth. It is a justification not restricted to art and cultural artefacts. It is notably and explicitly applied to the ownership of land, and implicitly applied to most things in the functioning economy. The poor are of course congenitally unable to enjoy (these protests must be whipped up by left-wing agitators), let alone create or preserve, the finer things of life. Some decades ago it was well kown in this country that if you gave the poor baths they would only keep coal in them. The poor, who, like the rich, are always with us, would these days be mostly expected to possess a bath but would probably be unable to afford the coal to put in it, or its modern equivalent in heating fuel.   Back to the mural: the current owner, or claiming owner is unknown and neither he or she, nor the auctioneer is telling. I expect the shop would deny having sold it for a quid and it is in any case only the tenant of the building. Suspicion, warranted or not, probably falls more on the investment company that owns it. It is probably not Banksy himself. The temptation is the estimate (by the auction house of course) that it could fetch almost half a million pounds - but before getting too excited one should bear in mind that when five Banksies were offered at auction in New York in 2011 none found a buyer.

Banksy himself is keeping quiet - mystery and anonymity being part of his succsessful public persona - but it is thought likely he would disapprove of an act so in conflict with his general social message. To me it is all part of the mystery of how some succesful modern artists make their money. It is clear how Damien Hirst does it, but who pays for Anthony Gormley to populate the remote crags of the Alps with thousands of casts of his own body? No doubt I am just showing my ignorance of the ways of wealth and culture. I console myself with the news that Denis Mahon. spectacularly successful art collector and heir to the Guinness Mahon banking fortune, has left his paintings (now worth many millions but none of them bought, in their art-unfashionable past, for more than £2000) to be distributed among a number of public museums and galleries in the UK on the conditions that the receiving collections are always freely open to the public and that they do not sell off any part of their holdings.

Art lovers
Maybe I am just hopelessly stuck in the past and we are moving from the old, drab, welfare state democracy to a new golden age where fabulously wealthy individuals commission magnificent works of art on public display - not so much new Elgins as new Borgias. In that case both Banksy and his furtive appropriators would be rather against the grain.

For undisclosed reasons, but we are told nothing to do with any doubts about title, the Banksy has now been withdrawn from sale. Parallel difficulties have afflicted the attempt of a London local council to sell off a now fabulously valuable Henry Moore sculpture which he donated for permanent public display in a poor area of London - although it has not been in its intended location for many years. No doubt it is thought to be vulnerable to vandalism, if not theft and the prohibitive cost or impossibility of insuring it is cited as a reason for disposing of it - as well as the need to pay for more basic public services as the government steadily reduces its financial support for local government. I believe the intened sale is held up not just by protests as by the difficulty of deciding who actually owns it after decades of local government reorganisations (or 'reforms' as modern politicians would like to call them) have dissolved the original recipient of the work.